“I plunge my hand into the bottom of the globe and fish out my paper. ‘Tree.’ Tree? It’s too easy. I learned how to draw a tree in second grade. I reach in for another piece of paper. Mr. Freeman shakes his head. ‘Ah-ah-ah,’ he says. ‘You just chose your destiny, you can’t change that.’
In “Sanctuary,” a chapter early in the novel, this exchange between Melinda and Mr. Freeman occurs as Melinda first chooses her art assignment from Mr. Freeman’s broken globe. This passage establishes the tree as the primary symbol for Melinda’s growth throughout the novel. Melinda’s reaction to her choice reveals her attitude as the novel begins. Thinking she knows more than she actually does, Melinda assumes she’s already mastered drawing trees. Much like Melinda reduces people to one-word descriptions of their physical traits, she only understands the idea of a tree in its most basic, general form. Her first instinct is to choose something else instead of accepting the tree assignment. However, Mr. Freeman uses the moment to make the point that people can’t erase the hardships life gives them but can only seek to understand and grow from them. This important lesson is one that resonates throughout the novel as Melinda grows from her experiences and trauma.
“No janitor has chilled in this closet for a very long time. They have a new lounge and supply room by the loading dock. All the girls avoid it because of the way they stare and whistle softly when we walk by. This closet is abandoned—it has no purpose, no name. It is the perfect place for me.”
In “Burrow,” Melinda’s observations about the old janitor’s closet reveal why she is attracted to the room. In the closet, she can hide without being found. She feels like the closet is the perfect place for her to self-isolate because it’s been abandoned and forgotten. Like the closet, Melinda feels she has no purpose or identity. The old Melinda is gone and only her empty vessel of her remains. The subtle mention of the new lounge and supply room serves two purposes. First, the old closet is no longer used by school staff so Melinda can safely commandeer it for her own use. Secondly, Melinda subtly points out how young girls are repeatedly sexualized not only by students but also by adults to the point that they avoid certain places altogether for their own safety. The repeated motif of lack of safety for girls, particularly when it comes to sexual situations, serves to foreshadow the fact that the traumatic event Melinda is so afraid to speak about is sexually violent in nature.
“There is a beast in my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, staining me. My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them.”
In “Closet Space,” Melinda describes how her feelings are so painful they hurt her physical body. Throughout the novel, characters exhibit physical reactions to emotional stimuli. Whenever Melinda sees her attacker or is reminded of the incident, she begins to suffer symptoms of a panic attack, such as a racing heart, labored breathing, chills, dizziness, confusion, and pain. She also hurts herself by biting her lips and nails until they bleed. Until she finds the closet, Melinda believes that if she can forget the attack and pretend as if nothing happened, she could heal enough to fit in with her family and old friends. However, her time in the closet gives her a safe space to realize that even if she does forget, this pain inside her, which she calls “the beast in my gut,” will never leave entirely. “Beast” is the same term she uses to describe her attacker before she identifies him by name. The closet offers her a place to reflect on her trauma and try to understand it so she can truly move on.
“I’m not pretty or smart or athletic. I’m just like them—an ordinary drone dressed in secrets and lies. I can’t believe we have to keep playacting until I graduate. It’s a shame we can’t just admit that we have failed family living, sell the house, split up the money, and get on with our lives.”
In “Winter Break,” Melinda describes her relationship with her parents, providing insight into the fact that Melinda sees all people as living double lives, a theme that is repeatedly mentioned throughout the novel when it comes to Melinda’s classmates, teachers, parents, and other authority figures. While Melinda can see other people’s intelligence and talent, she can’t notice the same qualities in herself. Melinda sees herself and her parents as “drones,” going through the motions of life rather than living it, hiding behind secrets and lies. Although Melinda goes through the motions of trying to appear to be a good girl and “playacting” being a part of a family, she doesn’t actually see the point of any of it. She’s only doing what she thinks is expected of her, which is the same behavior she sees in her parents. In this way, Melinda’s own behavior reinforces the theme of performance and false appearances.
“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside—walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It’s the saddest thing I know.”
In “Riding Shotgun,” Mr. Freeman reveals that Melinda is not alone in her struggle to express her feelings, allowing her a safe place to communicate. Melinda’s attempts to ignore her own emotions so she can fit in and appear happy are excruciating to watch, but according to Mr. Freeman, not rare. After Melinda makes an observation that surprises even her—that she doesn’t know how she is supposed to feel—Mr. Freeman warns her about what happens to people who never learn to express their emotions. Their individuality slowly dies and they never truly learn to live a genuine life. In Speak, characters who express themselves honestly, such as David and Mr. Freeman, are disrupters who live in peace, while characters who quietly go along with the status quo are preparing for uneventful, sad lives. This quote also ominously predicts what will happen to Melinda if she continues to repress her emotions instead of finding a way to express them.